Empathy is an interesting thing. I’ve always felt like I have a bit too much of it. I could easily empathize with someone who was in pain and I would spend a good chunk of my time figuring out how to help that person. If I couldn’t help them, I would feel bad.
I always thought my empathic nature was a benefit to others and just slightly detrimental to me as I spent way too much time trying to solve other people’s problems and then I would feel terrible if I couldn’t help.
Today I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that my empathic nature has been helping me more than I ever realized. What I discovered is that having empathy for others and having an understanding of how their lives have their own hurdles, helps me reflect on my own challenges…which often seem trivial in comparison.
I start to see how my life is actually pretty wonderful and my mood swings towards being grateful for my life circumstances. I become happier and my life flows better.
Why did I have this thought today?
I was recently helping a couple who are separated have a discussion about money. They are trying to map out their financial future going forward as single parents, co-parenting their two children.
One parent is re-entering the workforce after a hiatus of six years to look after their young children. The other parent is taking on half of the parenting burden as they switch to a week on/week off parenting schedule.
The parent re-entering the workforce is uncertain of the future and how to cope with starting a new career while maintaining a hint of her prior life as a stay-at-home parent. She is afraid her kids will think she is abandoning them and she also knows she will miss being with them when they are at their dad’s home.
The parent taking on more parenting could not get past the fact that he would still be contributing money to the other parent while looking after their children 50% the time. He thinks he just took on 50% more work without seeing any benefit at all.
As they talked they got more and more entrenched in their individual positions and I could tell they had stopped listening to each other.
As I watched their dialogue deteriorate, I thought about how their inability to see each other’s perspective was hurting each of them. I don’t know what they were feeling, but their language indicated that they were both feeling like the victim in their current situation. I do know that feeling like a victim often leads to feelings of anger and depression. Before I stopped them, they had gotten to the point where they were searching their memories for other instances where each perceived that they had been treated unfairly. Their focus became who had it harder in life.
Now – this couple is very angry with each other, but I kept thinking – wouldn’t it be nice if they could each see each other’s perspective?
What if they both recognized that the other person had similar fears and concerns? Both of them are starting something new and both have fear of the future. If they could each put themselves in the other’s shoes, they would each stop focusing on the negative aspects of their own lives. Instead of using all their emotional resources to shore up their own feelings of hurt, they might start thinking about how the other person had it equally bad and then maybe, just maybe, they might start trying to think up solutions to help the other person.
This would be natural collaboration. And where did this natural collaboration come from? It came from empathy and understanding of the other person.
I realize that with this couple, this is too big a challenge at this point, they dislike each other too much. So that is why I suggested taking a breather from the discussion. Perhaps time and distance will allow their natural empathies to grow and we can get back on the subject of their hopeful futures another day.